When Iran makes headlines, it is usually as a result of its conflicts with other countries. Far less attention is paid to Iran’s conflicts with itself, which are still raging nearly 40 years after the revolution that brought forth the Islamic Republic. Despite the images of a monolithic, repressed, hyper-devout society that sometimes serve as a shorthand for Iran in Western media, the country is in fact the site of a great deal of political and ideological contestation. As Laura Secor writes in her new book, Children of Paradise, “Iran does not have a culture of passive citizenship, despite the best efforts of its rulers, past and present, to produce one. What it does have in many quarters is a restless determination to challenge injustice and to seize control of its destiny.”
Secor, who has reported from and written about Iran for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and this publication, has produced a vibrant panorama of contemporary Iran that doubles as a thorough intellectual and political history of the country’s past four decades. She tells the stories of the men who have held power, and also those of the men—and, increasingly, women—who have opposed them: activists, journalists, lawyers, university students, and ordinary citizens who have risked their lives by challenging authority.
The Iran that emerges from her account is full of contradictions, complexities, and paradoxes. The book ranges widely, but it is held together by an underlying narrative of intellectual evolution: the descent of dissent, from the revolutionary thinkers who helped bring down the shah, to the reformists who later sought to liberalize Iranian theocracy, to the contemporary generation of activists who have directly challenged clerical rule and paid a heavy price. Throughout, the book calls attention to how each generation has dealt with the Enlightenment concepts of rights and equality and with the desire to maintain religious legitimacy. Today’s activists and reformers still struggle to reconcile the fundamental beliefs of Islam with the
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